WTO’s Consensus Builder

The World Trade Organization gets its first woman and first African leader.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who assumes office as director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO) this month, brings to the job a long résumé and a reputation for deft diplomacy, both at home in Nigeria and on the international stage. The first woman and first African to lead the WTO since it began in 1995, she takes over a powerful global institution riven by conflict between its two superpowers, the US and China.

Okonjo-Iweala is a “very appropriate and excellent” choice for the position, says Kingsley Moghalu, former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, who is now with the Council on Emerging Market Enterprises at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. “Ngozi thrives on challenge. Ngozi likes to face problems. She is a very persistent, capable negotiator.”

Consensus-building will be critical, says Moghalu, noting that the incoming Biden administration has supported Okonjo-Iweala enthusiastically after the preceding Trump team initially rejected her, while Beijing has welcomed her appointment. She brings gravitas, competence and a solid network of global contacts that should help her forge consensus, he adds.

Formerly managing director at the World Bank, she also served as Nigeria’s minister of finance and minister of foreign affairs. As finance minister under former President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2005, she coordinated negotiations that led the Paris Club to write off $18 billion, or 60% of the $30 billion Nigeria owed to members.

A warm personality and approachable disposition will also work to her advantage as she seeks to reposition the WTO. “She is very likable,” says Moghalu. “She is very authentic, as one can see from her gele [traditional headgear] and her dress. She is unapologetically African and yet very global in terms of her outlook and experience. That blend of being an authentic African and a global citizen is hard to achieve in one personality.”

She also looks to be an example to younger African women. Since the announcement of her WTO appointment, Okonjo-Iweala has been trending on social media, as the #BeLikeNgoziChallenge is encouraging women and girls to adopt her Ankara African print style.